Weekend Look Ahead

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8 things to watch for in Bills at Broncos | Week 15

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1. Trying to un-Lock their QB

The Broncos were encouraged late last season when then rookie QB Drew Lock won four of his last five starts. They believed Lock would make further progress in season two, but a propensity to shoot for the big play in the passing game has led to a low completion percentage and a high rate of turnovers.

Lock's 13 interceptions are good for second-most in the NFL. Slowly but surely, new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has been able to convince the young quarterback to make quicker use of his checkdown options to help keep the Broncos offense on schedule.

Those results were on display last week when Lock went 21-27 passing for 280 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Carolina.

"It's just having the mindset of taking the shots when they're there, but not forcing them," said Lock. "I did that a little bit in previous games, and it caused us to have to come off the field. We need to stay on the field as long as possible because when we do, we end up making those plays that keep us going, keep the drives alive and helps us get points. That starts with me taking care of the ball and realizing when those shots are there or realizing when I need to check it down."

"I think he did a lot of really good things in that game and you guys are talking about it for the right reasons," said Shurmur. "We were more efficient. He took some check downs. All along this year, we've been trying to call nakeds and quick throws and things to kind of keep him in rhythm. We were able to hit on our deep balls, which got us some points, and we ran the ball effectively. All those things go hand in hand.

"As we become a little bit more careful with the ball and keep building on all those other things, then I think we're going to be where we need to be to play consistent, winning football."

Lock has one or more giveaways in each of his last nine games (15 total), which is the longest active streak of games with one or more turnovers in the league.

2. Points have been a problem

In a season where the league as a whole is scoring points at a record pace, the Broncos have found it difficult to keep up. Denver ranks 29th in the league in scoring as they're averaging just 19.6 points per game.

The Broncos have managed to score more than 20 points in just five of their games this season, and they have just a 3-2 record in those contests.

Denver has found it difficult to move the ball with great efficiency this season. They rank 29th in the league in yards gained on first down (4.81), which is almost a yard off the league average (5.57). That leads to long down and distance situations on third down where their conversion rate of 37.6 percent ranks 27th.

And even when they are able to move the ball and get into the red zone, they don't have a high rate of reaching the end zone. It's bad enough they have the second fewest red zone possessions in the league with just 33, but they also rank 26th in red zone touchdown efficiency (54.5%).

Their offense has also been outscored early throughout the season. Denver has a point differential of minus-68 in the first half, the fourth-worst through the first two quarters in the league.

It's why the Broncos have only played with the lead for 31.5 percent of their time on the field this season. 53 percent of the time they have been trailing on the scoreboard.

3. Record breaking opportunities

It certainly won't be Josh Allen's focus in the game on Saturday, but there are a number of single-season franchise marks that the Bills quarterback can set against the Broncos.

Should Allen come out of Saturday's game with a passer rating of 100 or better, it will be his seventh game this season with a rating of 100 or higher.

If he throws for 300 yards or more it will be his seventh such game this season tying Drew Bledsoe's franchise record (2002)

And if Allen manages to complete 30 passes or more he'll set a new team record for number of 30-plus completion games in a season with six.

"He's having a hell of a season," said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. "He's a big, strong guy who can run. He's tough to tackle in the pocket and he's tough to tackle when he breaks out of the pocket. They have some designed runs for him. He's seeing the field very well and throwing it very well. The guy has really emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the league, and I can remember when people were saying there wasn't enough good quarterbacks for the league and it seems like we're playing a good one every week, so I think that's disappeared."

To the Broncos' credit they rank 10th in the league against the pass, but Allen has faced top 10 passing defenses before. In fact, Allen has completed 69 percent of his passes and thrown for an average of 247 yards with 11 touchdowns against four interceptions and a 104.8 passer rating in five games against top 10 pass defenses this season.

Odds are that Allen's chief concern entering Saturday's game is getting the win, as evidence by the team's record in those games against top 10 pass defenses is a perfect 5-0.

The Bills QB is one of just three quarterbacks with 10 or more wins and a passer rating of 100 or better this season (Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes).

A win Saturday would also clinch a playoff berth and the AFC East title.

4. Corner shortage

The Broncos have experienced an unprecedented shortage at the cornerback position over the last few weeks. A week removed from losing Essang Bassey to an ACL injury, Denver lost two more cornerbacks to a knee injury in their Week 14 win over Carolina. Both Duke Dawson and Kevin Tolliver were lost for the season to knee injuries.

Add in the six-game suspension currently being served by veteran CB A.J. Bouye and CB Bryce Callahan still on injured reserve and not eligible to return to the lineup for another week one sees the predicament the Broncos are facing at the position.

"I've never been in this situation before," said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. "And when you say three corners, the third one just got here. So, there's a lot to learn and a lot to get in. [I've] never been in this situation before. Hopefully [CB] Michael [Ojemudia] and 'Baus' (CB De'Vante Bausby) and [S] Will [Parks] as the nickel can stay upright and play the entire game and we won't have to find out."

To help bolster the ranks Denver signed CB Parnell Motley off San Francisco's practice squad. They also signed CB Nate Hairston off Baltimore's practice squad last Saturday.

It's unlikely that Motley will be available for Saturday's game against the Bills due to COVID-clearance protocols for players joining a new club. Hairston, however, should be cleared from the protocols by Saturday to play against Buffalo.

As Fangio mentioned, Denver also claimed S Will Parks off waivers from the Eagles on Dec. 2nd and he can play slot corner in a pinch.

Rookie Micahel Ojemudia will start at one cornerback spot with De'Vante Bausby at the other, who has appeared in eight games this season.

A negative result of not having any consistency in the lineup at cornerback has been the surrendering of big plays. Denver's defense has given up the third-highest number of plays of 20 yards or more. Through 13 games the Broncos have allowed 53 plays of 20 yards or more.

5. No robbers

All of that turnover at the cornerback position this season is partly to blame for the Broncos low total of takeaways this season. Denver has forced just 11 turnovers in 13 games, the second-lowest total in the league. Only the Houston Texans have fewer takeaways this season (8).

It's also a big reason why Denver sits last in the league in turnover margin at an eye-popping minus-18 on the year. That margin is the far and away the worst in the league. Only three other NFL clubs have a negative turnover margin in double digits, and all three are still considerably off Denver's pace.

Cincinnati, Dallas and Philadelphia are all minus-10 on the season.

6. Red zone lockdown

As poor as Denver's offense has been in the red zone this season, their defense has been a veritable Fort Knox.

The Broncos lead the NFL in red zone defense, allowing opponents to convert with a touchdown less than half the time (24-49, 49%).

"They're extremely well disciplined, extremely well coached," said Bills QB Josh Allen based on his assessment from film study. "It's kind of that bend don't break model and then that's where they tighten up in the red zone. They've been tops there all year. As a team that's where you've got to score in the red zone. We've got to make sure that when we run the ball we run with purpose and we've got to find ways to get in the end zone.

"You see it all the time. When teams are in the red zone, but you're only able to come up with three points, that's what keeps games close. So, it's about going out there and executing.

"But it's evident and you see it on film. They play really well down there and it's no surprise to us that it's their strong suit so we've got to find ways to get in the end zone."

Buffalo's offense ranks 18th in the league in red zone touchdown efficiency with a success rate of 58.5 percent, but they've done a good job of utilizing all of their passing targets in the red zone to keep defenses off balance.

"The way (Coach Daboll) draws it up and the fact that we have so many skill players that can make plays in the red zone like Gabe Davis, Isaiah McKenzie," said Stefon Diggs. "Everybody can catch the ball. You even see (Cole) Beasley sneaking in and getting some touches here and there. But we've got a lot of weapons on offense and they do a great job of utilizing those guys and you see tight ends even showing up big for us at times.

"And Josh is a guy who can extend plays and in the red zone that's big because you're working with limited space and a guy that can move around and maybe run for it or move around a little bit and put the ball anywhere. We watch the tape and he can squeeze that ball in small areas and it's impressive."

Scroll through to see the best photos from Buffalo's practice out in the snow as they prepare for Week 15 against the Denver Broncos, presented by Toyota.

7. Bills defense peaking at right time

Buffalo's defensive unit has shown marked improvement as the season has worn on, particularly coming off their bye week in Week 11. They've allowed 65.3 fewer rushing yards per game over their three games since the bye, as it's a miniscule 69.7 rushing yards allowed per outing. In their first 10 games it was 135 yards per contest.

The opponent's yards per carry average is down almost a yard and a half from 4.8 per carry over the first 10 games to just 3.4 yards per rush over their last three games.

The third down conversion percentage allowed is down almost 20 percent from 46.5 percent conversion the first 10 games to 27 percent the past three weeks.

And the opponent passer rating is down as well, dropping more than 17 points from 96.5 the first 10 weeks to 78.9 in the last three games.

"Probably following the KC game (Week 6) I think our defense has steadily improved in a number of different areas along the way," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "One emphasis we had early on was we wanted to get better as the season went on. We really didn't want to look back and say we played our best football in September or October. That was a goal and that's what's happening. Our guys are improving at the right time and that's what you need to be able to do in our league. You really want to be getting to your peak from late December and on. Our guys are really moving in the right direction."

Buffalo even got their first defensive touchdown of the season last week thanks to a 51-yard interception return by Taron Johnson.

8. Broncos trying to find consistency on special teams

In their Week 14 win, the Broncos got an inspired performance from their special teams unit as Diontae Spencer returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown in what wound up being a five-point victory. But it was still compromised by a pair of missed extra points by Brandon McManus.

What's interesting is McManus has been the rock of their special teams unit this season. It's the rest of the group that has been lacking according to NFL Network analyst Mark Schlereth, who made an appearance on 'One Bills Live' this week.

"It's been awful," said Schlereth of the Broncos special teams unit. "Other than McManus, who has been good all year, last week notwithstanding, last week was their first good week on special teams where for the first time they contributed to a win. They've been awful in the return game, the coverage game. They have not been very good all season long."

Spencer's 83-yard punt return vaulted the unit all the way up to second in the league in punt return average. A week prior they ranked 20th.

The Broncos rank dead last in average drive start at their own 23.7-yard line. They also rank 29th in kick coverage, which explains why they rank 26th in the league in average drive start allowed of the 26.3-yard line.

Could this be the week for Andre Roberts to make a house call?

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